Monday, August 2, 2010

Three by Ray Bradbury

I will discuss important plot elements and endings for the stories.

Three Short Stories by Ray Bradbury:

A poignant tale about a monster and about loneliness and even perhaps about unrequited love.

One of the gentlest post-holocaust stories I've ever read.

Another gentle horror tale: avoid those regressive tendencies!

The Fog Horn

This is a gentle monster tale, although there is some destruction in the story, seemingly the result of frustration and despair and loneliness. Briefly, a fog horn awakens a creature that has been sleeping for millions of years. It sounds like the call of one of his own kind. Lonely he swims up from the depths and finds the lighthouse. This has happened for several years now, but this time will be different.

It's a simple little tale, one that certainly doesn't deserve the treatment it got from Hollywood back in the '50s when the beast was transformed into a ravenous destroying monster that attacked NYC as
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms Beneath the Sea.

What makes this tale, aside from its theme of loneliness, is Bradbury's language. This is not a story to be raced through, paragraph to paragraph, page after page, until the end is reached and one can go on to the next story. It should be read slowly and thoughtfully in a quiet place. One should savor the language. It may take longer to finish it, but it's worth the time spent.

The story opens with two men in a lighthouse:

"Out there in the cold water, far from land, we waited every night for the coming of the fog, and it came, and we oiled the brass machinery and lit the fog light up in the stone tower. Feeling like two birds in the gray sky. McDunn and I sent the light touching out, red, then white, then red again, to eye the lonely ships. And if they did not see our light, then there was always our Voice, the great deep cry of our Fog Horn shuddering through the rags of mist to startle the gulls away like decks of scattered cards and make the waves turn high and foam."

McDunn then relates a strange incident that happened years ago that tells us the sea is a place that we know little about and a place of inexplicable events. It's about the lighthouse and the possibility that other creatures may not see it as we do.

"'The mysteries of the sea,' said McDunn thoughtfully. 'You know, the ocean's the biggest damned snowflake ever? it rolls ands swells a thousand shapes and colors, no two alike. Strange. One night, years ago, I was here alone, when all of the fish of the sea surfaced out there. Something made them swim in and lie in the bay, sort of trembling and staring up at the tower light going red, white, red, white, across them so I could see their funny eyes. I turned cold. They were like a big peacock's tail, moving out there until midnight. Then, without so much as a sound, they slipped away, the million of them was gone. I kind of think maybe, in some sort of way, they came all those miles to worship. Strange. But think how the tower must look to them, standing seventy feet above the water, the God-light flashing out from it, and the tower declaring itself with a monster voice. They never came back, those fish, but don't you think for a while they thought they were in the Presence?'"

I have never lived by the sea, so a fog horn is not something that I regularly experience. However, many years ago, I went to San Francisco and there I did hear a fog horn. I had forgotten about it until I read the following passage in this story:

"One day many years ago a man walked along and stood in the sound of the ocean on a cold sunless shore and said, 'We need a voice to call across the water, to warn ships; I'll make one. I'll make a voice like all of time and all of the fog that ever was; I'll make a voice that is like an empty bed beside you all night long, and like a empty house when you open the door, and like trees in autumn with no leaves. A sound like the birds flying south, crying, and a sound like November wind and the sea on the hard, cold shore. I'll make a sound that's so alone that no one can miss it, that whoever hears it will weep in their souls, and hearths will seem warmer, and being inside will seem better to all who hear it in the distant towns. I'll make me a sound and an apparatus and they'll call it a Fog Horn and whoever hears it will know the sadness of eternity and the briefness of life.' "

And now, whenever I hear a fog horn in a film, I remember that passage.

The night comes and the fog rolls in. The Fog Horn blew and the monster appears and answers.

"I saw it all. I knew it all--the million years of waiting alone, for someone to come back who never came back. The million years of isolation at the bottom of the sea, the insanity of time there, while the skies cleared of reptile-birds, the swamps dried on the continental lands, the sloths and saber-tooths had their day and sank in tar pits, and men ran like white ants upon the hills.

. . .

The monster was only a hundred yards off now, it and the Fog Horn crying at each other. As the lights hit them, the monster's eyes were fire and ice, fire and ice.

" 'That's life for you,' said McDunn. 'Someone always waiting for someone who never comes home. Always someone loving some thing more than that thing loves them.' "

This doesn't seem to me to be that beast from 20,000 fathoms that tried to destroy NYC.

Is this really a tale of unrequited love?

There Will Come Soft Rains

The main character is a house, a house of the future, with all the gadgets and gizmos dreamed up by the futurists and that appear occasionally as a feature article somewhere, usually as a filler. Actually the house strikes me as being a bit of a nag.

"In the living room the voice-clock sang, Tick-Tock, seven o'clock, time to get up, time to get up, seven o'clock! as if it were afraid that nobody would. The morning house lay empty. The clock ticked on, repeating and repeating its sounds into the emptiness. Seven-nine, breakfast time, seven-nine!"

The house goes ahead and makes breakfast, but there's no one there to eat it. Obviously something is wrong and it isn't until the following passage that we get the answer.

"Ten o'clock. The sun came out from behind the rain. The house stood alone in a city of rubble and ashes. This was the one house left standing. At night the ruined city gave off a radioactive glow which could be seen for miles."

The house has been doing exactly what it was programmed to do, even though its human occupants had been gone for some time. But, without humans, there are breakdowns, for this is a human invention, and eventually the house is destroyed by fire. Bradbury's description of the house's desperate efforts to save itself makes it seem alive and sentient, frantically trying to put out the fire, a beast of prey.

Recently I've seen several books, a film, and a TV series, all with a similar theme: What will happen to our cities and towns and roads and towns and buildings after we are gone? Bradbury's story was published in 1950, and it asked the same question a half century ago. The title comes from a poem by Sara Teasdale, and it sums up those books and films and the TV series:

"There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire;
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, whether bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone."

While it's clear that Teasdale may be too optimistic about the overall effects of a nuclear war, especially in the areas that have been bombed, I think the point of the story and the poem are clear, and it happens to be the same point that one of the films made--at least the one that I saw. Human artifacts will eventually disappear. We will not be missed.


The Pedestrian

Mr. Leonard Mead has a strange habit: he likes to go for walks in the city where he lives. And he has had the city streets to himself. "In ten years of walking by night or by day, for thousands of miles, he had never met another person walking, not once in all that time."

No, this is not a post-holocaust tale in which Mr. Mead is the last man on earth.

"Sometimes he would walk for hours and miles and return only at midnight to his house. And on his way he would see the cottages and homes with their dark windows, and it was not unequal to walking through a graveyard where only the faintest glimmers of firefly light appeared in flickers behind the windows. Sudden gray phantoms seemed to manifest upon inner room walls, where a curtain was still undrawn against the night, or there were whisperings and murmurs where a window in a tomb-like building was still open."

This story has a copyright date of 1951 and it's an "if this goes on" tale. Why was nobody out on the streets anymore? TV is the villain. I saw it happening in my neighborhood. People would frequently come out on the front porches of their homes and enjoy the cooling air during the warm months. By the late 60's this had disappeared for the most part. Everybody was inside watching TV. I now live in Tucson where the weather is such that one could sit outside for most months of the year, but it seldom happens.

But this isn't just a playful exercise in human foibles. Mr Mead has had the freedom of his regular strolls for many years now, but human society, as usual, has little or no tolerance for those who are different--in any way. And we here in the land of the free are no different.

Mr Mead is confronted by the police who question him about his activities and are astounded to learn that he's just out walking--walking for the sake of walking. He is ordered to get in the back of the car, which is outfitted much as would be a cell. When he asks where he is being taken, he is told "To the Psychiatric Center for Research on Regressive Tendencies." I fear he will be a subject of their research for the rest of his life.

Regressive tendencies--a throwback, someone who engages in activities that are out of step in today's world. I wonder what that would include today. I write with a fountain pen, whenever possible. Would that be considered a regressive tendency?

Would I be guilty of regressive tendencies because I am frequently out of touch with people? In fact, any time I leave the house I am "out of touch." No one can contact me, unless they are physically in my presence. I could be anywhere or doing anything. I don't have a cell phone (actually I prefer calling them mobile phones). Many people are surprised and some even taken aback a bit--not much, but they obviously think that something may be wrong with someone who chooses to be out of touch.

Are you guilty of any regressive tendencies? Well, perhaps you might not want to say here, for someday you may find yourself making a one-way trip t
o "the Psychiatric Center for Research on Regressive Tendencies."

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